Is nature cruel? Manchester taxidermy exhibition explores conflict and co-operation in the animal world

A troupe of animals including wolves, hares and birds have descended on Manchester Museum to challenge the notion that ‘nature is cruel’.

The cast of taxidermy predators, prey and parasites explore the idea that nature is a balance, not a battle.

As the centenary of WWI is commemorated this year, Manchester Museum is looking at the ‘nature’ of conflict in their new exhibition ‘From the War of Nature’.

Henry McGhie, head of collections and curator of zoology, said: “The old view of nature red in tooth and claw is no more ‘real’ than a view of a peaceful nature, or of many other kinds of relationships.”

BATTLE TO SURVIVE: A bird and a mole fight over a worm

The title suggests a move away the idea of animal nature as a constant struggle for life in a harsh environment and against one another.

This idea was given credence by the works of Charles Darwin, who used it to explain the evolutionary drive, and it replaced earlier schools of thought that nature was an harmonious balance.

Mr McGhie told MM: “Human society is not a perpetual boxing match. The idea of conflict in nature means more a ‘conflict of interest’ than a battle.

“This idea of nature as a battle is used as a false mirror for human behaviour. This is then the justification for cruelty and aggression.”

The exhibition shows a taxidermy collection of common British species such as weasels, voles, shrews, kestrel and hares illustrating natural animal behaviour. These show the many ways species cooperate to resolve conflict, in surprising and non-violent ways.

For example, a magpie will prey upon smaller birds, but predator and prey will band together to warn away owls, who are even higher up the food chain.

The huge Canadian wolf is proving to be the most popular exhibit so far. 

BIG AND BAD: A Canadian wolf is not all it seems

Wolves enjoy the dubious honour of being portrayed as big and bad in popular culture but in reality they live in close packs bound by family ties of affection and mutual aid.

The animals are familiar to us through fairytales and classic literature, and seeing then in the context of their true environment means human morality of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are not applicable.

The Hobbesian idea of the basic state of man as ‘nasty, solitary, brutish’ is also challenged by Mr McGhie: “We are a very altruistic species, much more so than other species. This is a consequence of sexual selection, which shows it’s a preferred trait.”

CLOSE-UP ENCOUNTER: A stuffed mole at Manchester Museum

The exhibition showcases specimens from the archive at the Manchester Museum, which is the third largest in the UK after the Natural History Museum in London and Oxford University’s collection.

The Head of Collections has spent a year building the exhibition, working with scientists at the University of Manchester to create an informative and playful display.

From the War of Nature runs until 7 September and is free.

For events and talks relating to the exhibition see:

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